07 January 2007

Cover Photos in Social Science & Political Theory

Many of you will have seen Alec Soth's post called "Photos for Writers" on his blog. If you've not seen it have a look as it is not only very insightful but, at some points, hilarious. Alec discusses the role cover photos play in our assessment of works of fiction. He calls our attention to a cool web page called Covering Photography devoted to archiving book covers that use photographs. This got me thinking about how photographic cover art is used in my neck of the woods. In fact, I had thought about this a bit already, but not in nearly as insightful and entertaining a way as Alec has now done.

When I say that I'd thought a bit about how photographic cover art is used I don't want to exaggerate. I mean "a bit." I was prompted to do so by having been invited to participate on an "Author Meets Critics" panel at the American Philosophical Association meetings last spring. The author was my colleague Robert Westbrook whose book is pictured here. The cover image is by FSA photographer Russell Lee and captures, I thought, Robb's sense of pragmatist politics as grounded in local communities. I wrote a comment (that you can find a link to in the side bar) that takes this cover as a starting point and proceeds to discuss the way pragmatists can not only misconstrue the vicissitudes of community but how (following Dewey) they in fact basically have misconstrued the important uses of photography and, moreover, done so to their own detriment. None of this actually addresses the arguments Robb advances, many of which I agree with. I took the cover as an invitation to think through some issues that were on my mind. Robb tells me that he personally selected this photograph for the book cover himself, although my unscientific survey of colleagues suggests that presses typically want authors to butt out of such matters and are quite frank about saying so.

Sticking with the theme of books by pragmatists, this next cover is from Richard Rorty's Philosophy & Social Hope, the image is a photograph by Wim Wenders taken in 1983 while he was scouting locations for his film Paris, Texas and later included in the book/exhibition Written in the West. Just what this image has to do with Rorty's text, which is about neither recapturing memory or social alientation, I am unsure. I also have no idea whether Rorty himself had a hand in selecting the cover photo. But the book is an accessible way into Rorty's thinking and it has a wonderful cover.

The next three books are just things I managed to pull off the shelves here at the house (most ofmy books are in my office at the University). So there is nothing especially systematic at work here, just an attempt to show something of the range of photography that appears on the sorts of books I read. In each instance the cover image seems to be broadly illustrative of the author's subject.

Starting off is Saskia Sassen Guests and Aliens an historical analysis of worldwide immigration. The cover photograph is "Highway Camp, July 1989, Encinitas California," by Pulitzer Prize winning L.A. Times photojournalist Don Bartletti. The image captuers the blur of headlights in the background while the migrants sleep outdoors and conveys the sense of two worlds, one passing the other. It suggests too how difficult it will be for these migrants to make the move from their world into the one speeding past.

Next is a book cover by Kevin Bales Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy bearing a photograph by Sebastião Salgado from a series that he took at the Serra Pelada gold mines in Brazil. I have mentioned this book here before and, indeed, have commented on the fact that the cover photo is from Salgado [*]. The image, depicting a laborer grasping the barrell of a gun wielded by a uniformed guard, is striking insofar as it demonstrates that workers can and do resist the dangers and indignities imposed on them. I do not know if the workers at Serra Pelada are literally enslaved. They are, however, caught in a market for rare metals. It is also revealing to note that in this standoff with the armed guard, the worker has not only his heavily muscled physique but his comrades observing in the background.

Finally, is this terrific book, History & Illusion in Politics by a former teacher of mine - philosopher Raymond Geuss. If you are in the market for a concise, provocative discussion of many current themes in contemporary political thought (and who isn't!), this book is for you. The cover image shows a massive gathering of some sort in Palace Square in St. Petersburg; the photo credit (undated) reads only "Russia Demos 80 Sygma/Corbis Sygma." This reproduction, lifted from the web, does not quite capture the texture of the clouds hovering low over the square. That texture lends a sort of ominous quality to the actual cover and definitiely is in keeping with Geuss's argument. Perhaps that quality - skeptical and foreboding - is why I find his book so congenial.

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